Happy birthday to The Man in Black.
Yes, today would have been Johnny Cash’s 84th birthday and as I’m writing this, I’m listening to Johnny’s Drink to Me and it makes me happy and sad at the same time.
I’m advised that in Johnny’s country of birth there are quite a few disgruntled white men belly-aching about being discriminated against (cry me a river guys) and that’s why Donald Trump is current front-runner for the Republican nomination to possibly become the President of the USA.
These are words I hoped never to write and on their own present a reason to drink.
But it’s always cocktail hour here at SSM, so that means focusing on positives. Like one gem from the world of cocktails for which we need to thank a disgruntled white man.
The Old Fashioned.
The world’s first classic cocktail. Its full name (because we like to be formal here at SSM) is the Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail (whiskey here definitely spelled with the e because it’s a rye or a bourbon whiskey) and we can thank our old friend Prohibition again for rebirthing it.
See although it dates back to the early 1800s, during the Big P, people who didn’t have the readies to get down to Havana, would make their own booze.
And it would have been bloody awful.
To mask the taste, bartenders added pretty much anything they could think of to cocktails – fruit, honey, mint, sugar syrup, whatever.
Dark days my friends.
Fast forward to 1936, three years after the repeal of Prohibition, and the habit had stuck. A crotchety gent writing under the nom de plume “Old Timer” wrote to the NY Times to complain about the lost art of cocktail making. OT said in no uncertain terms that he wanted a return to the Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail.
Whiskey (probably rye since that was more readily available pre-Pro), ice, a sugar cube and 3 dashes of bitters.
That’s it. That’s the recipe.
If you doubt me (but seriously, why would you?), take a look at Robert Simonson’s definitive tome on the matter;
Muddle the sugar, bitters, and a barspoon of warm water at the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass until the sugar is dissolved. Add the rye or bourbon. Stir. Add one large chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of orange zest over the drink and drop into the glass.
You do need to muddle the sugar cube because it won’t dissolve effectively in alcohol, but other than that, it isn’t a very fussy cocktail.
Not fussy but highly contested.
According to the IBA, you garnish it with a slice of orange and a maraschino cherry.
And look, I hate to say this, because it is a bit of a game-changer for SSM where we use the IBA as the authority for cocktail recipes, but the IBA is WRONG.
There’s no call for an orange slice – it’s a twist.
There’s an art to getting the twist right. Cut a slice of citrus peel, with minimal pith (flip it over and check if you can see the pores of the zest through the pith – if not, throw it away and try again. For a great how to guide on the twist, take a look at THIS) then you twist it over the drink until some of the citrus oil is released into the drink.
Then run it around the rim of the glass or drop it straight in.
So no orange slice, no maraschino cherry, no soda water and certainly no bloody LEMONADE.
Simple but seems it’s hard to get right.
The Old Fashioned is the drink of choice of Mad Men’s Don Draper and there’s a great scene where he makes one for Conrad Hilton.
Great scene, crap Old Fashioned.
Did you see what Draper gets wrong? He adds soda water.
Ryan Gosling gets it mostly right in this scene from Crazy, Stupid Love, but he sprinkles sugar just before serving. Unnecessary (so unnecessary that it makes me suspect it’s actually Rohypnol but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt).
Remember, we’re using good quality whiskey nowadays so we’re not trying to mask its flavour, we’re enhancing it.
It’s quite a blokey cocktail. As well as its origins, it isn’t presented much in popular culture as being popular among the laydeez.
One notable exception is Bette Davis’ 1942 film Now, Voyager which takes its title from a Walt Whitman poem The Untold Want.
“The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted.
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”
Although an admirable premise and with some interesting themes, this is kind of a shitty movie.
Its primary message is that if you have bad eye-brows as a woman, you are destined to be a self-conscious, unattractive spinster (but apparently if you’re a bloke with bad eye-brows, you can apply for all sorts of interesting jobs).
Fortunately, Davis’ Charlotte Vale puts us all out of our misery and casts off her glasses, has an eye-brow wax and becomes deserving of love. Phew.
Then she drinks a bourbon Old Fashioned with her love interest. Just to keep things balanced though, she doesn’t order it herself, in her journey of self-discovery a man orders it for her.
But screw all that. If you like a good cocktail, order an Old Fashioned, whatever your gender or eye-brow shape.
Feel free to leave it to the professionals though.
SSM did some field testing on a rainy night in January (not February, February is Prohibition and February is sucking).
First in Sydney’s subterranean Palmer & Co. The ice was the only problem – the Old Fashioned calls for one big ice cube, so it doesn’t melt too fast.
Revolving 47 floors above George Street at O Bar and Dining, absurdly handsome Swedish waiters will bring you drinks as you spin slowly, pausing in conversation to glory in the majesty and beauty of the Sydney Opera House every forty minutes or so.
When the aforementioned handsome one asked me how I would like my Old Fashioned, I stammered that I’d like bourbon, but wanted the bartender’s choice of bourbon. At altitude, seems bartenders favour Booker’s.
Booker’s is a Jim Beam Distillery product and was invented by Jim Beam’s grandson who had the spectacular name of Booker Noe.
Booker was the sixth generation of his family to make Bourbon and died, aged 84, in this week of 2004.
Booker’s was introduced in 1988, long after today’s birthday boy had given up the drink. In his drinking days though, Johnny Cash favoured a bourbon with a water, so you may like to raise an Old Fashioned to him this week. Or watch THIS CLIP for Hurt and try not to cry. There’s a great article HERE about the story behind the clip that makes it even sadder.
Cash and Elizabeth Taylor used to speak each year around this time since her birthday was the day after his.
No mention of whether Johnny would ring his other birthday pal, unlucky-in-love balladeer and walking advertisement for regular hot oil treatments, Michael Bolton.
Feel free to raise a glass to MB if that’s your bag (remember though, he said he love you…but he lied – please, please take 5 minutes to watch that clip – Eagles! Fire! Horses! Chest hair! Spectacular scenery and something very special at 1:34).
And just to finish back on a note that is my single biggest worry at the moment, there are two other white guys in the USA with more in common than you’d expect.
They don’t share a birthdate, but they do share a birthplace (Queens) and quite clearly a desire to do the same thing to the country.
Donald Trump and porn star Ron Jeremy.
I won’t drink to that, but next week I’ll drink to you.